Tuesday, June 30, 2009

Heroic Fantasy Quarterly - First Issue!

Congrats to Dave and Adrian, my friends and fellow writers, and now the editors of a new online magazine, Heroic Fantasy Quarterly, which is now open for readers to enjoy. Wha-hoo, congrats, and all that jazz!

The Black Flowers of Sevan by James Lecky (short fiction)

Man of Moldania by Richard Marsden (short fiction)

Beyond the Lizard Gate by Alex Marshall (short fiction)

Ansel's Army by Elizabeth Barrette (poetry)

Leo Passimus Remembers His First Voyage by Danny Adams (poetry)

The fantastic artwork is by Justin Sweet, and it's a perfect match for the atmosphere of not only the website but the fiction on offer. Check it out!

Taking Risks - Part 2

This post continues the discussion on risk, which will eventually link up with the theme of this blog -- telling stories -- in a future post. (The first entry about risk can be read here.)

Risk is a word most associated with finance, war, insurance, or teenagers, but risk is also often used as shorthand for irresponsible behavior, ill preparation, or some combination of the two. (Case in point: Christopher McCandless, he of Into the Wild by John KraKauer, and the film by Sean Penn -- I don't care how much solitude he hoped to collect, the boy shoulda prepared for the wilderness. )

Yet is there ever a time when risk is the responsible path? When, given a choice between known or unknown, safety or freedom, safety is not the safe choice?

What freedoms, when sacrificed for safety, are ever worth the loss?

When does a man take a stand and say, "No more. I will not live my days huddled in the narrow confines of what I know. I will not die wrapped in a security blanket. Come what may, I will live free"?

I do know this: Risk can be answered, even when one is not expecting it. In the case of the Bielski brothers in the film Defiance, they were placed--like their ancestress, Esther--in that place "for such a time as this" (Esther 4:14, Holy Bible). They had served in the military. They had smuggled. They were familiar with the countryside. Though they had little in the way of weapons or survival gear, when trouble came, they were prepared to meet it.

And more than meet it. Hitler himself tried to root them out of the forest, but they and their band of Jewish survivors did not yield.

For them, the risk was the responsible path.

While we talked by phone this past Saturday night, my brother mentioned the fact that all the jobs he has done play a part in what he does now. During OTS last year, his instructors drilled into him and the other potentially commissioned officers the weight of leadership that they would be shouldering. My brother didn't feel that weight; he'd already been carrying it. Almost the entire time he has been in the Air Force, he has stepped into places of leadership that are not expected of his rank, whatever it has happened to be at the time. He hasn't usurped someone else's authority, or taken on what didn't belong to him, but was either assigned duties or took on responsibilities that others didn't fill. He is doing that even now, until someone of the proper rank can take a particular position.

Just as the Bielski brothers were prepared by their life experiences to take on the mantle of Moses and set their people free, my brother has been prepared in unexpected, even mundane, ways to take on the tasks he now performs. His role has not been as dramatic or as challenging as theirs, but one cannot know the future. He may have a grand part to play in troubles that have not yet risen. (And, no matter what comes, Bubba, you're my hero.)

When he first began his pursuit of a commission, he had no guarantees. There were conditions to be met before he could even begin the process to apply. At any step, his way could have been blocked. There would be no recouping of money or time lost. Yet he began the journey, determined that, even if he failed, he would keep trying until he was told, "No more. All your chances are exhausted."

He prepared, he persevered, and several years later, having jumped successfully through all those hoops, is now on the path he was prevented from traveling when he first entered the military.

Why? Because "when you get to the point that this is unacceptable, you take steps to change it. But you don't change until your dissatisfaction with where you are outweighs the risk of stepping out on faith."

Sounds a little like the confessions of an addict, doesn't it?

Hello. My name is Keanan. I'm tired of playing it safe.

Saturday, June 27, 2009

Update on Thieves' Honor

In company with some excellent science fiction of the short variety, as well as a few fun serials and more awesome artwork, Episode 8 of Thieves' Honor is now available in Ray Gun Revival, issue 53.

Though no shorter than previous episodes, "Endgame, Part One" is a little more terse, a little less humorous, and more focused on the mission and the action.

Episode 9, "Endgame, Part Two" -- already in the hands of the RGR Overlords -- is much the same as 8, but with perhaps more humor and more detail, so the story has a looser feel as Kristoff and the crew move closer to their goal: get fuel, and rescue Finney. There's still tension, though, and a fair amount of action.

Episode 10 is still being written, doesn't have a title, and may be longer than any other episode to date, though I try to keep them short; thus, the terseness, and the pared-down details. However, I want to keep the humor. After all, we humans can always find something to buoy the spirit, even in tragedy or trouble.

Minor spoiler: I'm kicking around an idea for later in the story, and it may require the sacrifice of Kristoff's dearest possession: his ship, the Martina Vega. She's a tough old girl, but -- well, I'll say nothing more.

Friday, June 26, 2009

Taking Risks - Part 1

Maybe because of the economic nosedive, maybe because I can't find a different job without sending my own finances into a dive, maybe because my life is a rut, I've been thinking a lot about risk.

Well, not just risk: faith and adventure, and both of those might involve risk. If one's faith isn't misplaced, there's no risk at all. If there's someone strong anchoring the other end of a good rope, and if the caribiner clip holds, the adventure holds minimal risk, as well. But what if--?

This past week, I've indulged my love of movies by watching a few that have been recently released on DVD. A couple of them have, in the mental sense, been following me around: Faith Like Potatoes and Defiance, both of them true stories, their screenplays based on books, and both about men who took risks.

In Faith Like Potatoes, Angus Buchan and his family flee violence in Zambia and take up residence in a tiny travel trailer on a farm in South Africa. His children don't seem downhearted at all by what might, to them, have been an adventure -- whenever my family moved, it was an adventure, even if I was uncertain of the future -- and even his very pregnant wife doesn't complain about the necessity of living in such reduced circumstances until a proper house can be built.

Angus, however, is an angry, driven man, and an old stump that he just can't dig up or chop away serves as a visual obstacle to all the turmoil inside him. Despite his anger, the locals help and befriend him anyway, and Angus turns to God. What follows is a story of, in many ways, greater risk than he faced when saving his family or starting over on a new farm.

(Read here for a more jaundiced view of Mr. Buchan and his message, on a blog written by a South African Christian.)

In Defiance, Tuvia Bielski and his brothers help save fellow Jews by hiding in the Nalibocka Forest of Belarus. The Bielskis lose parents, wives, children, friends, but they refuse to let the Germans and the anti-Semites win without a fight: If they give up, they will certainly die, but if they resist, they just might survive.

They live for months in the forest, and endure great hardships and losses, but though the forest becomes almost entirely surrounded by the German army, their efforts become the greatest rescue of Jews by Jews in the course of World War II.

(Read here for a review of the movie along with some critical comment.)

After watching these stories, something in me wants to know if I could do what those men did, and refuse to give up despite appearances, the low expectations of others, and all the troubles that rose up to block the path forward. Knowing failure was the most likely outcome but was by no means an option, would I answer the challenge? Would I take the risk?

Raiding the Literary Attic

I've been poking through old folders and files, reading what I wrote years ago. Some of it is abysmal. Some of it is -- well -- not embarrassing, but not good.

The following piece of flash fiction was originally written in 1998, and comes in at just under 300 words.


Groggy, Tom rose from the chaise-lounge and surveyed the crowded room through bleary eyes. Light-headed, he somehow maintained his feet, crossing to where his wife wept, rocking back and forth in a straight-backed chair. He had never seen her so drunk.

“‘Sokay, Molly,” he mumbled, patting her shoulder. He missed, and caressed only air.

Uncle Nick shuffled past in cracked leather oxfords, dark suit, wide orange tie. Cousin Janis chatted in the corner. Her hat was grotesque, a huge floppy affair punctuated with feathers and smothered in yards of black tulle falling to the backs of her chubby knees.

He blinked at Mrs. Carson’s magenta dress. It jolted his foggy memory: Molly’s annual Halloween bash.

But in a church? He eyed the vaulted ceiling. Surely even Molly wouldn’t display such poor taste.

Yes, she would.

The guests didn’t seem to be enjoying the joke—nobody but Judge Mortimer, smiling broadly at everyone.

He’d get the old goat. The chaise-lounge was beside the judge—convenient for striking up a conversation—and Tom felt like lying down again, anyway. His head was still fuzzy. He lurched forward with wicked delight. This might be a lively party after all.

Janis touched a portrait just then. His portrait. It reclined atop the organ, surrounded by lilies.

“Poor Tom,” she said with a small smile. “Poor drunken fool. He always was good for a laugh.”

The gleaming mahogany lounge yawned, menacing. Something clutched him, compressing his chest, forcing him toward the wooden box. He clawed at air, at guests, at furniture. His ears roared.

Dead silence.

The minister’s mournful face peered in at him. He tried to scream, but sound was killed by darkness as the satin-lined lid closed with a gentle thud.
c. 1998, Keanan Brand

Wednesday, June 24, 2009

Vanish - Day 3

On the third and final day of the June CSFF Blog Tour, featuring Tom Pawlik's excellent suspense novel, Vanish, is a brief discussion how the story meets Christianity.

First, a sideways disagreement with the book by another reader: On the Amazon.com page for Vanish are included several comments on the book, most of them rave reviews, but the following is less than satisfactory -- not because of the quality of the story or because the writing was somehow sub par, but because of the faith of the author:
Why is the author and publisher hiding that this is a christian book? As a Jew, I don't care or want to read Christianity themed or inspired works. Readers of other beliefs, I'm sure woud feel similar. Whether you feel the same or want to read such titles, Amazon and the publisher has a responsibility to let the customer know. This is not the first book I read the review of today on my kindle that had a hidden Xtian message\agenda!
At the risk of sounding snarky, the above reader must not have paid much attention to the Christian Writers Guild label right there on the front cover. Neither the author nor the publisher is hiding their faith. If a reader sees that label and chooses to pick up the book and read it, then he or she does so with fair warning.

That being said, I have read books with decidedly anti-Christian or non-Christian slants, and while I may not have agreed with them, I did not feel my faith at all threatened as a result. I already know what I believe, and why I believe it. Simply because there is a contrary argument out there, or a work of fiction that presents a contrary view, does not mean I must believe it, or that it must sway my faith. So I'm curious as to why the reviewer felt obligated to remark as she did. (shrug)

Second, that being said, this story is not a direct correlation to the Bible. Though the Bible contains stories, it is not a work of fiction (despite what our atheist friends might want us to believe). Vanish is a story. Though there might be instruction in its pages, a story's first job is to entertain, and Vanish does that quite well.

***** Minor Spoiler Alert! ***** Highlight with cursor in order to read *****

Third, the allegorical role of Christ is fulfilled by the "mute" boy, who is described as appearing about 9 years old, corresponding to the age the central character's son would have been, had he lived. "Son" was my first reaction. The boy is not a direct parallel with Christ, though he fills a certain redemptive role (saving Connor from the edge, holes in his wrists, the blood dripping from the wounds). However, his being startled by the "aliens", and his apparent fear in the graveyard and at the boat dock jars with the character of Christ as we know Him from the Bible: He would not fear evil or the unknown, because 1) His power is greater than any evil, and 2) nothing is unknown to Him.

Side note: Were I not familiar with House by Frank Peretti & Ted Dekker, I might not have already been wondering throughout the story if the boy were either Connor's son or some sort of redemptive figure. The ending, then, might have been even more of a surprise.

The boy's disappearance from the boat is never explained (unless I totally missed that part in my voracious consumption of the book), nor is his presence in the Interworld between life and death, though that presence is integral to the plot.

***** Major Spoiler Alert! ***** Highlight with cursor in order to read *****

Fourth, how does Howard, a human being in a comatose state in the living realm, become Death, the keeper of the gateway between worlds? Maybe that's explained in the sequel.

Despite my questions about a couple of matters in the plot, the book is overall a solid entry into the speculative fiction family, and I highly recommend it to anyone looking for a gripping, thought-provoking, and entertaining read.

For other views, check out the list of bloggers in the sidebar under the CSFF Blog Tour heading.

Tuesday, June 23, 2009

Vanish - Day 2

Back for a second helping of Vanish by Tom Pawlik? Excellent!

I suspect this man has read The Lord of the Rings a time or two, or seen the movies, or both. Why? The reference to "a far, green country" near the end of Vanish. In the film version of The Return of the King, Gandalf spoke to Pippin of what waits beyond death as a far green country; at the end of the book, the far green country is what Frodo sees as he sails away to the West with the elves. Near the end of Vanish, it is the land that beckons Connor, a land that stands in contrast to the barren waste that is hell.

Addendum: Per an author interview over at Becky Miller's blog, my suspicions are correct. Pawlik is a Tolkien fan. Welcome to the Geekdom!

Speaking of author interviews, there's a Q & A segment on his website that includes this excellent piece of writing advice:

Q: In your opinion as a writer, what’s the key to creating suspense?
A: I’ll tell you in 15 seconds.

Q: Very funny.
A: An exciting story is not all action or fighting and chasing. It’s about making the reader wonder what’s behind the door or around the next corner. Suspense is not about what happens. It’s about what happens next. (emphasis mine)

Pawlik does an excellent job of setting up the scares, but not telegraphing them. And, despite my jaded view of scary literature, there are surprises. If there weren't, and if all my guesses had been correct, I would have put the book down long before finishing it.

Now, because Vanish is a piece of fiction with the label "Christian" attached, some readers might expect a sermon. Weeelll, there is and there isn't a sermon. Yes, Biblical truths are presented, and they play a huge part of the plot, but there's no neat bow at the end, no wrapping up of the story in a tidy little "altar call" where all the sinners "get saved" and everyone lives happily ever after.

And I like it that way. It's enough like life that I, the reader, can buy into the story. The characters aren't cardboard cut-outs. They speak, act, react like people I know. Like me. Though my style and genre are different from Pawlik's, his characters are the kind I strive to write: ones with whom the audience can identify, ones whom they understand.

If you read Vanish and are left wanting more, its sequel, Valley of the Shadow, is now available (both books are in paperback).

Monday, June 22, 2009

Vanish - Day 1

The CSFF Blog Tour's June feature is Vanish by Tom Pawlik. It's his debut novel, but readers wouldn't know it. It's a humdinger of a tale, and even gave me the creeps in a couple scenes, but that's not a bad thing. Not a bad thing at all. Many stories -- and movies -- that promise the weird and the creepy often descend into gore, or telegraph scares that end up being un-scary, or become just plain cheesy in sad, laughable attempts to keep the audience on the edge of their seats.

Mr. Pawlik had my attention from the get-go, and he didn't lose it, not even on the last page, with its ironic and darkly humorous ending. In fact, I would have kept reading to find out what happened to other characters -- a good story can't be long enough -- and, turns out, there is more: the sequel, Valley of the Shadow, is out this month.

Back to Vanish: Connor Hayden, a lawyer in Chicago, goes throughout the workday with the strange sensation that he's being watched. Later that night, he watches an unusual storm front approach. He wakens the next morning to a deserted city in which he appears to be the last inhabitant.

The same occurs for an aging former model, a couple of street kids with guns, and a young man on his way to propose to his girlfriend. They all wake up in an empty world, yet they come together through a variety of circumstances, and form a band of survivors trying to elude the strange grey "aliens" whose touch burns even as it chills.

I'm not one for stories of space aliens, but -- if you're like me -- don't let this brief synopsis turn you away from an awesome story. In the desolate, desperate world of Vanish, all is not as it seems.

Read the first chapter here, and then buy the book and read the whole thing. Betcha can't stop!

Other points of view:
Brandon Barr
Justin Boyer
Keanan Brand
Grace Bridges
Karri Compton
Amy Cruson
CSFF Blog Tour
Stacey Dale
D. G. D. Davidson
Jeff Draper
April Erwin
Karina Fabian
Alex Field
Beth Goddard
Todd Michael Greene
Ryan Heart
Christopher Hopper
Joleen Howell
Becky Jesse
Cris Jesse
Carol Keen
Krystine Kercher
Rebecca LuElla Miller
Eve Nielsen
John W. Otte
John Ottinger
Donita K. Paul
Epic Rat
Steve Rice
Crista Richey
Hanna Sandvig
Chawna Schroeder
James Somers
Speculative Faith
Rachel Starr Thomson
Robert Treskillard
Steve Trower
Fred Warren
Phyllis Wheeler

Saturday, June 20, 2009

Once a Son, Now a Father

Today's post is by my younger brother, my very first guest blogger. Enjoy.

Today is Father’s Day, and I am reflecting on both my father’s example to me and mine to my children. It is safe to say that my father is not perfect or bullet proof, as I thought when I was a child. However, he has taught me some valuable lessons and created some fond family memories. I look back on my childhood and greatly appreciate all of the family outings that he took us on. He instilled a sense of wonder and appreciation for nature. He was always fascinated with learning, be that his or mine. He still has a thirst for knowledge and an appreciation of the wonder of God’s creation.

I remember a moment of pride when I was eight or nine years old. Dad was building a house in Sun River, Oregon. During the summer he took me to work with him, but at this time I was still relegated to picking up dropped nails and scrap lumber, sweeping floors, and fetching tools. Dad had gone to retrieve his circular saw from the truck, and left me alone sweeping the second story floor. I had no way to dispose of the sawdust and debris once it had been collected into a pile. I found a sack of some sort lying off to one side, and a scrap of aluminum flashing hidden under a pile of sawdust. I decided to use the flashing to pick up the debris. This was not a satisfactory arrangement, so I took the tin snips out of Dad’s tool belt which he had left behind. After cutting triangular notches in two corners, I folded the flashing into a dust pan. Dad came back upstairs when I was finishing off the pile of debris and the conversation went something like this.

“Where did you get that dust pan?”

“I made it.”

“Really? You made it?”

“Yes. I borrowed your tin snips and cut the corners of this piece of flashing that I found.”

“Wow. You would make a good engineer.”

That simple comment, stated with pride in his voice, has stuck with me my whole life. He doesn’t even remember saying it. Here it is about thirty years later, and I AM an engineer. You just never know what seemingly small comment or gesture will be profoundly influential on your children.

The day I left for Air Force basic training was another instance of Dad being proud of me. He choked up when he told me he was proud of me, wished me luck, and gave me a crisp, firm handshake before I boarded the bus. Note that he did not hug me. Men don’t hug, they shake hands. That day I ceased being a boy and became a man, an equal.

With all of my mistakes and short-comings as a father, I just hope that I can influence my children positively and profoundly. I want to provide them with enjoyable family memories by establishing our own traditions and going on our own family outings. I hope to instill a love of learning, common sense, and responsibility. All of these things I inherited from my father.

Thank you, and Happy Father’s Day, Dad!

Friday, June 19, 2009

Friday Fiction

For those of you who like your fiction short, funny, and biting, head on over to PhyWriter's blog for a flash fiction piece that made me laugh (but, then, I'm twisted).

If the space monkey theme throws you, it's a reference to Joss Whedon's short-lived but much-loved television series, Firefly, in which one character asks another why there's a mess in the engine room: "Were there monkeys? Some terrifying space monkeys maybe got loose?" Great stuff.


My copy of the June book for the Christian Science Fiction & Fantasy Blog Tour didn't arrive by mail, so I bought a copy in a local store, not sure if I'd have time to read it before this weekend. I not only read it, I devoured it: Vanish by Tom Pawlik. The same for the July book, which arrived early: The Enclave by Karen Hancock.

Vanish is weird and suspenseful, and The Enclave is tense science fiction set in the not-too-distant future. Both are darn good yarns, intelligent, well written, and solid.


I'm still working my way through The Count of Monte Cristo. What a tale. One might call it Shakespearean, but Hamlet's revenge doesn't even come close to the twisty path trod by Edmond Dantes a/k/a the Count of Monte Cristo. But, like the work of Ol' Will, this is a classic that never fails to engage and to challenge the reader, wrapping profundity in the guise of entertainment.


Eric over at Working My Muse is enthusiastic for Jamie Ford's Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet, a novel that I have yet to read but is on my list. I need to shorten the current stack of books before adding to it. Ah, the travails of a bibliophile. So many books, so little time -- or money.


Heroic Fantasy Quarterly, an online magazine that specializes in -- wait for it -- heroic fantasy is set to publish its first issue in July. If you have short fiction or poetry in that genre, send it on over. Check out the submissions guidelines first, though, and read all the way to the end -- for a laugh, if nothing else!


For creepy fiction and poetry, check out Fear and Trembling magazine. For entertaining science fiction (including, ahem, my own), read Ray Gun Revival.

Saturday, June 13, 2009

Lost in Translation

A few weeks ago, I purchased a new paperback copy of Alexandre Dumas's The Count of Monte Cristo, a book I read and read and read as a kid, and added it to the stack of books. Well, it has moved from the "to be read" pile to the "in progress" pile, and I'm wondering why I waited so long to get my own copy. Why keep checking it out from the library when I could have added it to my collection decades ago? But if I had, it wouldn't seem so fresh and intriguing now, because I probably would have read the book into oblivion, as has been the fate of a few other volumes whose bindings are dodgy and their dust jackets tattered. They're the Velveteen Rabbits of my literary world.

This particular translation of The Count is smooth and clean, easy to read, the work of Lowell Blair, who also translated several other classics (Madame Bovary by Gustave Flaubert, From the Earth to the Moon by Jules Verne, The Phantom of the Opera by Gaston Leroux, and more). Though abridged, it still retains all the necessary elements of the story, and -- I confess -- a skilled abridgment can result in a tighter, better novel.

There are several books featuring Monte Cristo and family. Several years ago, I purchased an early 1900s hardbound copy of Monte Cristo's Daughter, not written by Dumas but by a prolific American writer, Edmund Flagg. His name does not appear on that edition of the book, so the reader is forgiven for assuming that Dumas himself wrote it. I attempted to read it but was quickly bored; perhaps the story deserves another go, but my early reaction was that the translation could have been cleaned up to make a smoother reading experience. How was I to know it was written that way on purpose, and in English?

Translators have my respect. They take the words of other writers and interpret them for other readers, and it's a tricky task to remain true to author intent and style while presenting a clear, comprehensible, and interesting work that readers will enjoy in their own language.

A brief glimpse at the difficulties translators must overcome can be read here, at a page describing the difference in the number of verbs available in English as opposed to Spanish, and how readers are guided specifically in one language but expected to infer in another.

The Nautical Chart by Arturo Perez-Reverte was translated into English by Margaret Sayers Peden, a well-known translator whose work that I have read so far does not muddle the text (other books she has translated can be found here). In the translation of Perez-Reverte's novel, the English sings; it is my understanding that the Spanish sings, too.

Peden also translated some of Isabel Allende's work, none of which I have read, though I am told I must. I did try Gabriel Garcia Marquez's Love in the Time of Cholera, but just couldn't push past the first chapter or two. I might try his work again, through a different book.

I wish my high school Spanish had stuck around, so I could read some novels in their original language. However, I recall the challenge and the fun of translating pages of Don Quixote into English, an exercise reserved for advanced students. It's hard to believe I was ever part of that group.

If you have a favorite translation of a book, pass it along.

A previous post concerning The Count of Monte Cristo, among other books -- how they open, and how they end -- can be found here.

Photo Story

I drove one of the vans for a Club field trip this week, and we stopped at a local park to eat lunch and goof off. Of course, I had the camera -- it's part of my job to document and archive a photographic record of events -- and took several "sneak portraits" of kids by using the zoom and capturing faces when they weren't posed with the standard "say cheese" kind of expressions.

After being posted on a bulletin board, these photos are often given to the parents, just because.

The photo below isn't a portrait, but it's among my favorites. He's sitting still, but there's a story going on.

Summer Storm

We've been having curious weather lately -- bright days, then short but often fierce thunderstorms -- which put me in mind of a poem I wrote as an attempt to show a kid hesitant to enter the poetry contest at the Boys & Girls Club that 1) poetry is possible, 2) it doesn't have to rhyme, and 3) it can be about things that happen to us every day:


Metal tangs dusty air,
and devils dance—
lightning threads fire in the west.

Green sky looms,
thunder threatens—
gorged black clouds oppress the light.

Fire stabs, scattering
the blood of clouds—
fat warm drops blessing my face.

Trees bow before the wind
but I stand, arms outspread,
welcoming the storm.

c. 2006, Keanan Brand
True to the pattern set over the last few days, today is sunny so far, but there are predictions of thunderstorms every day into next week. I'm not complaining, though. I'll take rain over tornadoes any time!

Updated Sunday, June 14: Another fierce but brief storm overnight, one that knocked large branches down on my roof, which will now need to be inspected for holes. And, despite the sun, there was a short spate of rain. Go figure.

Friday, June 12, 2009

Late Night Check-In

It's now officially Friday morning, and well past time for me to, as the old-timers say, hit the hay.

The writers group met Thursday evening, and there was the usual exchange of news before settling down to reading whatever chapters were brought. Only two this time: one from a suspense novel in progress, and another from a fictionalized family history. And, as has become my wont, I brought nothing but my usual adamant -- some might say maniacal -- quest to rid the world of misused ellipses, misplaced modifiers, and missing commas.

Although, I have to admit, misplaced modifiers or missing commas can lead to humorous results; for a rough example, "After four years of law school then deciding to become a mechanic, drivers brought their cars to Scott's garage for the fastest, cleanest oil change in town."

Really? All those drivers went to law school then became mechanics? Well, then. They can change the oil in their own vehicles, can't they? Ol' Scotty'll be out of a job.

After a hectic week and a long day, my brain is on the verge of a sleep-induced shut-down. I've already fallen asleep at the computer several times during the past few days, and am bound to do so again during the summer. I hope someone else out there is having a lively time in my stead.

Sunday, June 7, 2009

Opening Salvos - 3: The Queen of Bedlam

Fiction writers know well the need to open their stories with some sort of hook, but the forms of those hooks vary. They are sometimes deceptively quiet, or brash and outlandish, frank with outright statements of apparent fact, or some combination of bold and calm, of fact and surprise, et cetera.

The perfect hook can often be the most difficult part of the book to write, and some authors wait to the final draft before finding exactly the right way to open the story. I've gone back after several drafts of a story, and totally changed the beginning. Perhaps it isn't relevant anymore. Perhaps it hints at directions the story never takes. Perhaps I've discovered the story doesn't begin there, but earlier, later, or somewhere else altogether, in a place I didn't expect.

Sequel to Speaks the Nightbird, The Queen of Bedlam by Robert McCammon opens quietly with interesting facts about the setting. Don't be fooled by the quiet, though; what follows is a dramatic and twisty tale.

'Twas said better to light a candle than to curse the dark, but in the town of New York in the summer of 1702 one might do both, for the candles were small and the dark was large. True, there were the town-appointed constables and watchmen. Yet often between Dock Street and the Broad Way these heroes of the nocturne lost their courage to a flask of John Barleycorn and the other temptations that beckoned so flagrantly on the midsummer breeze, be it the sound of merriment from the harbor taverns or the intoxicating scent of perfume from the rose-colored house of Polly Blossom.

The nightlife was, in a word, lively. Though the town awakened before sunrise to the industrious bells of mercantile and farming labors, there were still many who preferred to apply their sleeping hours to the avocations of drinking, gambling, and what mischief might follow those troublesome twins. The sun would certainly rise on the morrow, but tonight was always a temptation. Why else would this brash and eager, Dutch-groomed and now English-dressed town boast more than a dozen taverns, if not for the joy of intemperate companionship?

But the young man who sat alone at a table in the back room of the Old Admiral was not there to seek companions, be they of humankind or brewer's yeast. He did have before him a tankard of strong dark ale, which he sipped at every so often, but this was a prop to blend into the scene.
In the previous Opening Salvos posts (read Opening Salvos - 2: Old Man's War, and Opening Salvos - 1: In a Dark Wood), I have discussed changes that in my humble editorial experience could have improved the first few paragraphs of published works, but I wouldn't change a thing about this one. It works, and the reader needs every detail to better understand what happens next -- which I shall not reveal, so that you may experience this bizarre, intriguing, disturbing, and even funny, yarn for yourself.


On his website, McCammon has an excellent article about writing frightening fiction: "Innocence and Terror -- The Heart of Horror". One paragraph applies to all fiction, regardless of the level of horror included in its pages:
I like to read a good, go-for-the-gory-gusto horror novel every now and then, but they don't stay on my shelves. I read them and toss them out. The novels that stay do more than terrify. They resonate with human emotion, though, and---yes, a kind of innocence---long after the pages are closed. (emphasis mine)
Though I want it to entertain, I hope that my own work does more than provide a literary hors deouvres, but is a feast that sustains the mind and the soul. And, dagnabbit, I wish I could write like McCammon!

Friday, June 5, 2009

Movie Date with Mom

Just got back from watching Star Trek. Wa-Hoo! What a ride!

I'm behind most of the cinema-going public, having to wait often until movies come out on DVD before seeing them, and I had planned on going after work tonight to watch Knowing, (which is now at the discount theatre, and springing for a $2.50 movie with an interesting premise wouldn't shred the wallet), but then Mom called last night. She wanted to go to the movies, too.

So, after checking the listings, I called her at work today.

Her first choice was a certain flick that wasn't playing except during the afternoon, and she didn't want to see Knowing, since someone told her how it ends. "You want to see Star Trek?"

Like she had to ask.

I know I did. "Are you sure you want to see Star Trek?"

"Yeah. Why not? Besides, I know this science fiction writer--" She laughed.

Alrighty then.

After the phone call, I checked the wallet. Whew. A ten-dollar bill in the pocket; three dollar bills folded in with the coins. Just enough for dinner off the dollar menu at Burger King, and then the $8.50 ticket.

If anyone in my family is willing to lay down cash for an evening showing of a movie, we really want to see it. Mom actually pulled twenty dollars out of her account for this scintillating evening. I think she's becoming -- or, perhaps, she always has been, quietly -- a science fiction fan.

We arrived early enough to grab a couple seats high up in the back of the theatre. When the opening music started, I almost laughed out loud. Not because there was anything funny or wrong, but because the music was grand and wide and perfect. BAM. I was in.

Turns out, so was Mom. We were among the few who laughed in all the right places, and in a few that no one else in the surrounding seats seemed to think amusing. That's typical for this family, though. We have a skewed sense of humor.

Being a Trek viewer from way back, I listened for the signature lines -- "Damn it, Jim, _______(fill in the blank)" from McCoy, for instance, or "I'm giving her all she's got, captain!" from Scotty. The cast did an excellent job filling roles made famous by other actors, and I am reminded why I'm a J.J. Abrams fan.

I don't care about any dodgy science or any plot holes that folks have mentioned in their much more thorough reviews. I like to make up my own mind, and I know I like this film. It's intelligent, it's poignant, it's full to the gunnels with action, and I had a blast watching it.

So did Mom. She said more than once as we crossed the parking lot to our respective automobiles, "That was fun!"

What better review need there be?

Monday, June 1, 2009

The Day Job, Dad, and Deductive Reasoning

Summer Program has begun at the Boys & Girls Club, and that means the staff operates on half-energy for more than a full day's work. Baseball's in full swing (no pun intended), and school's out, so we're corralling kids when we open in the morning, and dealing with parents, volunteers, and the general public during the games at night. (Thank God, I'm out of most of the evening situations, especially since the grownups can act more childish than the children, who just want to play ball, and aren't caught up in the whole adult ego thing.)

A couple posts back, I mentioned my dad reading the first episode of my serial, Thieves' Honor. He's not a science fiction fan, nor does he read much other than nonfiction, but he likes the fantasy I'm writing (he's read the first manuscript, and is waiting for me to finish the second), so I had a thin hope he might enjoy the mildly cheesy adventures of a crew of space pirates.

Tonight, I get home at six, change shoes, grab the old-fashioned lawnmower, and blitz through front and back yards in a little over an hour. When I return to the house, there's a message on the answering machine: "This is Dad. If you survive the yard, give me a call. I read your little stories" -- Little stories, ain't that sweet? It annoys me, but I know he means the individual episodes that comprise the whole story -- "and I want to talk about them."

Turns out, he stayed up till two this morning, reading all the current episodes. "They're simple and straight-forward, and kinda fun. Rough and tumble, like a Louis L'Amour story."

The words he uses and the shrugging way he says them might seem like faint praise, but my dad read L'Amour's Westerns and detective stories throughout my childhood (and so did I, some of them many times), so a comparison to one of his favorite fiction writers is unexpected and encouraging.

"Style's not the same," he adds, "but it is. A little."

When words fail, sometimes you just gotta know the guy to know what he means.